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guilt and shame

The Elimination of Healthy Guilt Leads to a Reign of Shaming


To exist as a human being is to live in intermittent if not chronic states of tension, generated on the most basic level by a knowledge of our core insufficiency before the inevitable realities of sickness and death. Until quite recently the blunt reality of our tragic and often anxious destiny was widely understood and accepted, a fact borne out by the ubiquity of the subject of human suffering—and the need to come together in humility and hope to confront it—in virtually all religious and artistic traditions. 

The triumph of consumer culture, which places the monetization and exchange of goods at the unquestioned center of the human experience, has changed much of that by serially bombarding the population with narratives that suggest that we can indeed break free of the perennial problem of human anxiety… if we just engage the judicious selection of the all-knowing market’s available gamut of products and procedures.

Roughly three generations into the large-scale imposition or adoption (take your pick) of consumer culture we have, it seems, only begun to think seriously about the revolutionary effects of its repeated promises of a pain-free deliverance from tension and anxiety on the cognitive and behavioral patterns of the population, especially on the young. 

This delay was caused by the residual operation during the first two or so generations of the consumer age of more traditional centers of spiritual training within the culture. But as so often occurs with family businesses, it is the transition from generation two to generation three and beyond where things frequently fall apart, where the ethos that initially animated the enterprise turns, often quite suddenly, into a foreign language for the grandchildren or the great-grandchildren of the founder. 

And so it is today with the discourses of transcendence that served during consumer culture’s emergence as a counterweight to its ethos of voracious amorality. 

Nowhere perhaps are these negative cognitive and social effects more apparent than in the realm of developing what we might call “psychic mastery” before life’s constant and inevitable challenges. 

To speak of mastery is to speak of masters. And to speak of masters is to necessarily invoke the idea of authority, which is to say, the practice of delivering one’s self to a skilled other or set of others in the hope of gaining some enhanced ability to thrive in the world. And to speak of a submitting to a master or set of masters leads inevitably to the idea of guilt, understood in the sense of the emotion we naturally feel when we know we have betrayed the ideal (or the person instructing us in the ideal) that we have signed up (or been signed up) to pursue. 

There is, of course, such a thing as toxic, manipulative and paralyzing guilt. And I have little time for it, and am quick to call it out when I see it, just as I will always harshly criticize the many abuses that people carry out in the name of authority and mentorship.

But the fact that unscrupulous people leverage this natural human emotion to pursue personal power should not blind us to the essential role healthy guilt has always played in the proper moral and intellectual development of young people. 

And what’s that? 

To serve as a behavioral guardrail during the period, which can extend for years, during which we are still unprepared to inhabit the moral or intellectual ideals we are pursuing (or have been assigned to pursue) in a full, conscious and consistent manner. It works, in short, as a brake on the natural tendency we all have to tire and lose focus during our progress toward what we and those who love us hope will be a reasonable state of self-regulation in which we can maximize our inherent gifts and the ongoing pursuit of contentment, and if we’re lucky, extended periods of happiness .

Basic stuff, you say. 

But think for a moment of what all this looks and feels like to someone who has had no contact with a spiritual tradition emphasizing the ubiquity of struggle and who, thanks to the constant messaging of consumer culture, has come to believe that carefree happiness is the default position of the human condition. 

In other words, think of what happens when the longstanding practice of “becoming” through effort in the service of an ideal represented by usually older others is replaced by a logic that posits the radical self-sufficiency of each young person’s present-day intuitions and feelings, and that presents making the “right” choices amongst available brands as the high point of the exercise of human volition. 

People living within this mental universe have, it appears, little ability to see the invocation of authority as anything more than an unfair impingement upon their “right” to be seen as congenitally excellent, and to serially supplement that excellence through wise consumer choices. 

Hence, their aggressive flippancy before those suggesting that there might be certain historically ratified protocols and preventions worth heeding as they author their life trajectories, like say, being wary about promoting the permanent mutilation of pre-teen bodies on the basis of inchoate, transient, and often corporately-implanted and promoted notions of discomfort with one’s looks or internal feelings. Or carefully examining the known benefits and dangers of an experimental medication before putting it into your body. 

However, what few of our present-day iconoclasts seem to understand (how would they if they see the reading of history as a mere gambit to oppress them?) is that custom-smashing is a lot of fun until it suddenly isn’t. This realization usually occurs—if it occurs at all—among such people when they discover that many of the things that make possible their cherished sense of self-sufficiency—like the material culture in which they bathe themselves daily—are themselves deeply dependent on the maintenance of an historically derived social order. 

But here, at this potential inflection point, their pasts catch up to them. 

Having violently eschewed the very notion of achieving moral autonomy for self and others through imitatio, with its operative subtexts of veneration, guilt and artful rebellion, they are left with but one tool for achieving their newly recognized aim: the imposition of order through the massive and heartless imposition of shame, something currently being done through the practice of online mobbing. 

And thanks to the cynical support they receive from the government and its mega-powerful economic controllers, these digital brownshirts are currently winning the game to determine the key priorities of our culture through these methods. 

Those of us on the other end of this brutal social turn can perhaps take some solace in the fact that regimes anchored in the power of shaming tend to be less stable and long-lasting than those rooted in what I have described as the positive sides of mimesis and guilt. 

But we also know that an awful lot of damage to a lot of people can and will take place in the interim.

So what is to be done? 

Perhaps the best place to start—as insignificant as it at first might seem—is to determine to what extent consumer culture, with its constant emphasis on our need to generate marketable and applause-worthy performances before others, has insinuated itself into our own minds, and perhaps also alienated us from the difficult but ultimately rewarding work of establishing and living by a set of personally-determined philosophical principles. 

As part of this process, it might be useful for each of us to try and identity our own particular susceptibilities to shaming, and to ask if the “facts” driving them are worthy of an ongoing sense of inner unease, or on the contrary, whether, we as people armed with a knowledge of our own inherent fallibility, can let go of our anguish about them and, in this way, deprive the digital mobsters and their masters of the psychological buttons they need to push in order to cow us into humiliation and compliance. 

Bullies gain their power by exploiting the insecurities of others. Given the consumer culture’s constant if self-evidently absurd insistence on the possibility of pure happiness and endless personal improvement for all, the ranks of such thugs in big business and government, along with their online hit squads, now have a great deal of negative psychic material to poke at within of most of us. 

If we are to immunize ourselves against their ever more aggressive and manipulative designs, we must talk back to their constant and abusive invocation of the specter of human perfection, be it in the realm of the insisting on morally pristine life trajectories, or our supposed ability to fully subdue massively complex natural phenomena—like the constant circulation of viruses—with brilliant inventions.


By reminding ourselves and them again and again that everyone screws up, and that doing so is not only OK but expected and serially inevitable. And telling them forcefully that we know that anyone who harps on our perceived defects and fears from a position of power or influence, or tells us that they can free us from the problem of being congenitally imperfect or simply frightened through the purchase of a product, or through or the renunciation of basic legal rights, is no one we really need or want to have in our lives, never mind in a position of exercising control over our destinies. 

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Thomas Harrington

    Thomas Harrington, Senior Brownstone Scholar and Brownstone Fellow, is Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where he taught for 24 years. His research is on Iberian movements of national identity and contemporary Catalan culture. His essays are published at Words in The Pursuit of Light.

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